Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Jewel of Wonder - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 8

I hope this has been an interesting and insightful journey so far. You might be curious, though, as to what you’ll be able to take back home with you once we’ve made it to our destination. Sure, you might be thinking, childhood is a magical and wonder-filled time for many, but yours was not so idyllic. Besides, we’re not children anymore. We’re grown up, and we’re fallen – with bills to pay, problems to solve, and sufferings to bear. How can this recollection of that which we already know be of any benefit to us at this point in our lives? And anyway, children can be darned selfish brats at times! Isn’t the world already buckling under the weight of all of our adult selfishness without our regressing to some idealized childhood state?

Polished Lapis Lazuli

Certainly these are valid questions and concerns, and this seems like the perfect time to address them. First of all, I’m well aware of the fact that my childhood was blessed in many regards. I had a safe and stable home life, and I had the Nursery in which to blossom forth. Sure enough, the long shadow of the Vietnam War did reach me even in my wooded paradise, but that is the nature of the soil in which I took root. I’m also very much aware that the soil in which you took root might have also been comprised of a real war taking place on your neighborhood street, or between loved ones within the confines of your very own home. Notwithstanding the potentially vast differences in our upbringing, I hope that each of you reading this has at least some recollection of those feelings of belonging, trust, and wonder that I’ve described – however brief or infrequent they may have been. If you can recall even one instant when you felt these things, then you can nurture it with the awareness that you presently possess. For those of you whose early childhood memories are tucked away somewhere beyond your conscious reach, please know that your reality, too, is respected. Perhaps your vicarious experience of the nature of the children in your life will allow the message contained in these pages to resonate with you all the same.

Regarding the selfishness of children: Indeed, they can be very selfish, regardless of how limited their self-awareness might be. But I doubt that there’s any disagreement that children do frequently exhibit the qualities that I’ve been discussing throughout this book – qualities that could benefit our broken world if only we would display them a bit more frequently. The key is to marry these finer childlike qualities with the self-awareness of our adult self. By doing so, we allow them to become a more regularly manifested aspect of our now fallen adult self, thereby facilitating our redemption, if you will.

Many of us are already going to great lengths to do just that via spiritual practices of one sort or another, without even realizing it. That’s the weakness of engaging in spiritual practice with a seeking mind. Since we don’t necessarily have a very good idea of what it is that we’re seeking, and how we’ll know it when we find it, our spiritual seeking can become a never-ending quest – not because we never find what we’re looking for, but because our heads can become so full of ideas and concepts related to what we’re trying to find that we don’t even recognize its reality when we do. And so we run headlong down this path or that path, seeking after God, peace, transcendence, enlightenment, nirvana, or what have you, without ever being satisfied. We never believe that we’ve really found it. Perhaps it seems too ordinary, or perhaps we think it only exists for those who’ve reached perfection, and, alas, we’re not quite good enough! Remember that?

One of a number of parables contained in the Lotus Sutra, a text revered by many Buddhists, is a story that some refer to as ‘the parable of the jewel in the robe.’ The story is told on the occasion of five hundred Buddhist saints being assured of their ultimate Buddhahood, whereas previously they’d thought that the mere extinction of human desire and the cessation of their cycle of death and rebirth was the most they could ever achieve. They rejoice, likening the Buddha to a wealthy friend who must go away on business for a time, but who, before his departure, sews an expensive jewel into the robe of one of his friends who has fallen asleep after drinking too much wine – so as to keep him in good stead while they are apart. The two friends lose touch with each other for a long time after that, during which the one with the jewel sewn into his robe experiences numerous travails. When next they meet, the one who’d sewn the jewel into the robe of the other can see that his friend has not had an easy life. He calls on his friend to take note of the jewel hidden inside of his robe, impressing upon him that he can now use it so as to never want for anything ever again.

We are like that friend who had too much to drink and commenced to struggling for the rest of his life without realizing what he already possessed. We became intoxicated with our self-hood and forgot the wisdom of our childhood. Yes and even the “saints” in our midst frequently overlook the forest for the trees – busying themselves with the perfection of rituals and practices and prayers without ever realizing that those rituals and practices and prayers are intended to bring their awareness to that which they already know. So, in large part, what I want to convey with this book is the reality that we can imbue our existing spiritual practices with deeper meaning and intentionality, and a stronger sense of immediacy, by grounding them in our known experience rather than assuming that they are taking us to some heretofore unknown place. It is like orienting a map to the terrain. If we can see a landmark or two with our very own eyes and then point to their depictions on the map, then we gain confidence in the map’s ability to give us guidance. So let's consider these spiritual landmarks that we already know. Let’s bring them to conscious awareness so that we may cultivate them with greater success. Beginning with wonder, then, let's examine them in turn.

Wonder begins to fade or become co-opted as we grow older. When we are children, everything is new and unknown. But as we grow we begin to put layer upon layer of theory and explanation between “us” and the world of which we were once an integral part. How did the world begin? Why, God created it, of course. And so our wonder at the very existence of the world becomes curtailed. How did the world begin? The Big Bang started it, of course. And so our wonder becomes diminished one “explanation” at a time. We begin to separate from the world, and as that separation grows the world comes to be seen for its utility rather than as the very ground of our being.

Perhaps the child who once wondered grows up to be a scientist who makes a living trying to understand and explain – a very noble occupation, to be sure. Nonetheless, there is the inherent risk that her wonder might come to be co-opted for the sake of monetary gain or enhanced reputation within the scientific community. The pure wonder of her childhood years might come to be supplanted by the more “utilitarian wonder” that drives the research and development laboratories of corporations all over the world.

Perhaps we’ve grown so far removed from wonder that we’re now jaded and world-weary. We think we have the world all figured out – like some game that we’ve played so many times that the the only thing standing between us and hopeless boredom is the uncertainty of the next roll of the dice or turn of the card. On the other hand, we might fancy ourselves filled with wonder. After all, we lap up the latest scientific discoveries like cool water on a hot summer’s day. We gobble up facts about the world as if we were eating popcorn while watching a blockbuster movie. What we might not realize, though, is that such “pseudo wonder” has more to do with the edification or the reification of the self than its transcendence. The self always wants more and more. It can never quite be enough. And so our “pseudo wonder” will never amount to anything more than entertainment that keeps us from growing jaded and world-weary.

The wonder of children, however, is like a question with absolutely no expectation of an answer. It’s like a bright and plump and juicy piece of fruit that we gaze upon without the desire to consume it ever entering our mind. Consumption, after all, requires both a subject and an object, but the wonder of children is an example of the very transcendence of subject and object. More precisely, the wonder of children precedes the slicing and dicing of the world into bite-sized little pieces for our consumption in the first place.

How, then, are we adults to nurture the wonder of our childhood years? We can begin by making time to simply be still and watch what goes on around us and within us – without any desire to learn anything in particular, or see anything in particular, or feel anything in particular. No matter where we are we can be like that child that we once were, sitting still beside our very own pond – listening and watching.

Go and sit down on the grass somewhere. It will just seem like grass at first, but it will gradually reveal itself to be so much more over time. Maybe you'll find a variety of grasses, as well as clover, plantain, and weeds. But you need not try to name each one. Simply notice how they are different. Let your fingers find the earth in which they root. Perhaps you'll find something crawling in the shadows between the earth and the stalks and leaves. Lay back and look up at the sky, and the clouds, and everything that flies through and floats on the air. Can you detect the sun moving across the sky? Can you see the spots and squiggles that exist in the field of your imperfect vision? Feel the earth against your back and the breath inside your lungs. Wonder will arise – wordless, transcendent wonder.

Indeed, a natural place can be especially conducive to wonder, but you can find it anywhere. You can find it in an urban or industrial environment by closing your eyes and listening to the sounds. The rumblings and whirrings, the hissings and clunkings will begin to wash over you and through you. Don’t try to label them, or figure out their origins. Don’t try to determine whether the materials involved are stone or steel, rubber or wood. Simply listen to them, and marvel with them, and allow wonder to arise within you. You already know how to “see” in this way. Just make a little space in your life so that you can do it. You’ll wonder why it’s taken you so long!

I’ll be examining other spiritual landmarks as Chapter 8 continues. Thank you!

Image References

Lapis Lazuli by Adam Ognisty via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Full Functioning - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 7 (continued)

I’ve referred to the full functioning nature of childhood a couple of times already without giving it formal definition – relying instead on context in order to invest the term with adequate meaning. It’s actually got quite a rich history, though, and I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time exploring it further. Full functioning was first defined by counseling psychologist, Carl Rogers, in order that he have some objective criteria for determining the psychological and behavioral health of the adult individual. Such criteria could then be used to determine the success of the counseling process, or the need for it in the first place, as the case may be.

A key difference between the way I use the term and the way Rogers used it is that, whereas Rogers considers full functioning to be something that the self-actualizing adult has attained, perhaps after having successfully engaged in the process of psychotherapy, I consider it to be our birthright that we unwittingly discard as we grow and mature and engage in the process of constructing our self in this fallen world. These differing views are easily reconcilable as long as one remains mindful of the context. Toward that end, let me take a moment to review the three fundamental components of Rogers’ (1961) conceptualization of full functioning – experiential openness, organismic trust, existential orientation – highlighting along the way how I’ve reconsidered these three components from the vantage point of childhood.

Experiential Openness: The openness to experience that Rogers speaks of does not necessarily have to do with becoming more receptive to hang-gliding, ballroom dancing, or what have you – although I suppose such expanded receptivity would not be out of the question. Rather, our return to full functioning means the attainment of greater freedom from reliance on whatever defense mechanisms we’ve constructed in order to protect our self from that which we’ve deemed uncomfortable. Openness to experience, then, given that defense mechanisms distort our view of reality in service of the created self, entails a newfound openness to experiencing the world exactly as it is, along with whatever difficult emotions such unprotected awareness might bring forth.

Defense mechanisms, in the classical Freudian sense, are constructed and invoked by the unconscious mind. In a more general sense, however, we construct ways of looking at the world that tend to bolster our own self-image. An example might be an individual who enjoys reasonable material abundance protecting himself from the anxiety of seeing others living in poverty by constructing a worldview in which those who work hard are rewarded and those who are lazy go without. Such a “just world” view protects the individual’s psyche from both the worry that poverty might befall him despite all of his hard work, as well as the sense of responsibility that he might otherwise be burdened by with regard to helping those who live in poverty.

Children, however, have not yet constructed the defense mechanisms of which Rogers speaks. And, anyway, the child is as yet without a strong sense of self in need of protection. Sure, a child might recoil from an unfamiliar person or situation, but this is precisely because she greets life without defense. If something frightens her, then it frightens her. She feels no need to justify or explain her fear, or create the false impression that she is not really afraid at all. Her inner feelings and her outer appearance and behavior are congruent. Keeping up appearances for the sake of appearing cool, fearless, in charge, or unfazed will come later – once she has created a self and has an image to protect.

Organismic Trust: Organismic trust is trust in one’s being, one’s gut, one’s felt sense or intuition. The fully functioning individual trusts himself to assess whatever new situation might present itself and behave accordingly. He doesn’t feel any compulsion to “follow the herd,” or to check on how some respected individual might have behaved in a similar situation, or to reflect upon how his actions might be viewed by others. He has confidence in his ability to read situations clearly and accurately, and to read his own feelings about those situations clearly and accurately.

So often we adults end up second-guessing ourselves – especially with respect to the various personae we adopt. Since our personae do not necessarily arise from any innate or natural need, we often need to learn the “right way” to behave. For example, suppose a new corporate manager gets a call from one of the low level staff in another department. The new manager might ponder what the corporate culture would have him do. Should he feel honored that he’s already being viewed as a valued resource on the corporate team, or should he feel chafed that some underling thought he could just call up the manager of another department without going through the “appropriate” communication channels? Should he simply return the call, then, or should he find out who the caller’s supervisor is in order to have a chat with him?

This is a contrived example, of course, but don’t we think along very similar lines much of the time? Which persona am I in this particular case? What are the expectations for someone in this role? How will this look? What will people think of me? We often go through life figuring out how to behave based on our observations of the behavior of others who’ve adopted the same persona. It’s as if we’re constantly comparing some cardboard cutout version of ourselves to whatever template exists “out there” in society of who we think we’re supposed to be.

The fully functioning individual, on the other hand, has a diminished need for outside validation of his feelings or actions. He can be himself regardless of the situation. If he is not expert, then he is not expert; he has no ego to protect. If he is expert, then he is expert; he feels no need to hide his talents. He is, once again, congruent. He is authentic. He does not fear the world seeing him precisely as he is.

Isn’t that largely how children behave? They fumble about in their play without regard for looking silly or being judged. They sing and draw and run and dance, without any self-image to protect. They play when their being says play. They eat when their being says eat. They rest when their being says rest. And if you ask a child a question, you know that they will do their best to answer it – without any ulterior motive, or hidden meaning, or guarded language. ‘From the mouths of babes’ is an expression that honors this truth-telling tendency of young children. This is the organismic trust of children. They’ve not yet learned how to second guess their feelings or motives. They’ve not yet learned to feel inadequate for what they don’t know, or what they can’t do.

Existential Orientation: A life lived from an existential orientation is a life that is very much in tune with its unfolding in the here and now. An individual with innate trust in the totality of who she is (the entirety of her organism), who is unhindered by cumbersome defenses, is freer to live life in the present moment. She doesn’t need to selectively edit her experience in order to make it safer and more palatable. She doesn’t need to run it through a filter of thoughts and concepts in order to make it fit the way she thinks it should be. With fewer preconceived notions as to the nature of her self, she is free to become whatever the present moment might “need” her to be.

I doubt that I need to convince the reader that children are inherently expert at living in the moment. What is the play of children, after all, if not absolute engagement in the moment to moment unfolding of the circumstances in which they are immersed? A child can give himself up entirely to his play without concern for how he looks, and without feeling the need to conform to any standards that others have set for him – least of all himself. He isn’t pondering for even one instant how any particular experience will assist him in furthering his play career. Rather, he becomes his play. And when he is done playing, he will become the eating of his snack, and then the taking of his nap.

What would it be like to have such freedom once again? What would it be like to live without our self-imposed constraints, and our various and sundry conceptualizations? We need only to look within. We already know how to see without projecting who we think we are and what we think we need onto everything that comes into view. We already know how to be without measuring every action against those of another. We already know how to engage the world with the fullness and totality of our being rather than with the fragmented and inhibited self that we’ve become. We only need to recall the full functioning of our childhood days.

End Chapter 7


Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Image References

Running by Nevit Dilmen via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Recollection of Wholeness - That Which We Already Know

Obviously, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on childhood in these seven chapters up until now, both the topic in general and my own in particular. But how often do you think about yours? And what is the nature of your reminiscing when you do? Does it mostly visit you by happenstance – like an impromptu pining for more carefree times in the midst of a stressful day, or a sudden wave of nostalgia washing over you and then quickly receding? Perhaps you actively engage your childhood years much as I’ve done here – plumbing their depths for clues that might point you toward some meaning, healing, wholeness, or closure, or simply a better understanding of who you are. On the other hand, you might well do your very best, consciously or otherwise, to keep such memories in their place – locked in their trunk along with all the other bundles of pain and fear, anger and abuse.

Regardless of how pleasant or difficult or intentional the recollection of our childhood stories may be, revisiting them can help us clarify the nature of our present lives. They can help us glean insight into the genesis of our various neuroses and defense mechanisms, thereby diminishing our reactivity in the here and now. They can help us better understand the unfolding of our karma – our created patterns of thought and behavior – thereby allowing us to act with greater freedom in the present. Such insights notwithstanding, there is an even more fundamental benefit to examining our various stories and recollections; they allow us to take stock of the wisdom that is already ours.

This book is about the recollection of that which we already know – the re-collection of the wisdom that we already have, but which we’ve forgotten over the course of our fall. Our wholeness awaits. It simply requires our awareness for it to be brought forth once again. Some might find this vaguely reminiscent of psychoanalytic theory, wherein newfound awareness of some previously unconscious conflict allows it to be brought forth to conscious resolution. The difference is that, whereas the goal of psychoanalysis is to bring awareness to our forgotten brokenness, the goal of this book is to bring awareness to our forgotten wholeness.

Let me be clear, though, I’m not advocating that anyone put an end to whatever psychotherapeutic relationship they might be engaged in for the sake of celebrating some newfound wholeness that they’ve not yet fully realized. Instead, I hope that whatever exploration the reader might engage in related to the ideas contained in this book will be done in conjunction with whatever treatment regimen you’ve already begun. We must ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ at least to some extent. What I mean is that we live in a fallen modern world – Caesar’s, in a manner of speaking. If we allow ourselves to be judged by the criteria of this fallen modern world, then we might indeed be considered broken. Our minds aren’t fast enough to keep up with its pace. Our skills aren’t valued enough by the economy in which we must work. Its social disconnectedness has us feeling lost and alone. Its stress and fear-inducing realities put pressure on our psyches, thereby revealing our various so-called “weaknesses.” However, when viewed within the context of your higher power, your truest self, your Lord, your God, your creator, your source, your ground, your ultimate reality, etc. you are unbroken to this day. You are whole, and you need only to fully realize as much.

For some, this might seem to be a point of no great meaning or significance. For others, it might change the way you think about your life completely. You see, even after we’ve grown into adulthood, adopted our various roles, played all of the games that society expects us to play, and then grown disillusioned with the shallowness, or meaninglessness, or callousness of it all, we nonetheless still perpetuate the thought processes that propelled us down this road in the first place! We still see ourselves as being in need of improvement, or fixing. We still see ourselves as not enough. We don’t know enough, we aren’t strong enough, we aren’t wise enough.

Isn’t it ironic that, after growing tired of playing the “not enough” game that society wants us to play, after beginning to search for something more meaningful or more spiritual, we then risk falling into the same old “not enough” thinking all over again. We study holy books, but our understanding isn’t deep enough. We dust off the beliefs of our earlier years, but our faith just isn’t strong enough. We take up yoga or some other health regimen, but our body just isn’t flexible enough or our resolve great enough. We take up meditation, but our mind just won’t calm down enough. And so we seek out the guidance of some spiritual “expert,” some “holy” individual or another, only to be told that we’re not praying enough, or practicing enough, or meditating enough, or studying the holy books enough, or going to worship enough…

Recall, if you will, that the Buddha, near death after struggling for years with a spiritual practice that just wasn’t “good enough,” then remembered being a child and spontaneously entering into meditative absorption beneath a rose-apple tree. It was only after he approached his meditation in that way that he realized his enlightenment. But just before he did he was tempted one last time to fall into the trap of “not enough.” Mara demanded of him a witness to the depth of his enlightenment. The Buddha then responded by touching his hand to the earth. He was part of everything. He was enough.

Recall that it was Jesus who said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Whereas others thought that the children might not be mature enough, or intelligent enough, or understanding enough, or behave appropriately enough to be in the presence of one so holy, Jesus knew otherwise. For it is precisely what the children already know that makes them most receptive to the kingdom of God right here and now.

Let me be clear on another point as well: I’m not advocating that anyone curtail whatever spiritual practice they might be engaged in for, once again, the sake of celebrating some newfound wholeness that they’ve not yet fully realized. I’m simply advocating getting in touch with the wisdom that you already have so as to continue your practice with a much more solid foundation – a much more down to earth understanding of what you are doing. Towards that end, let’s revisit a term that I introduced very early on in this book – full functioning.

First, though, I need to take a little break! Until next week!

Image References

Trapped Childhood Memories by Rosino via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Three Minds to Heal a Broken World

The world is broken. From the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, to police and citizens battling in the streets of Ferguson, the world is broken. From the inhumane and exploitative factory farming practices that put cheap food on our tables, to the murderous rampages of the drug cartels down in Mexico, the world is broken. From the actions of those with money and power who use them both to keep them both, to our dependence on cheap fossil fuels that is driving climate change and the likely extinction of numerous species, the world is broken. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful. I think this brokenness can be fixed, as long as we come to understand its nature.

The nature of the world’s brokenness is that we all too often think that the brokenness is somewhere else, or in someone else. We rarely grasp the fact that the brokenness is in each and every one of us. Ah, but don’t we all behave like little despots much of the time! It’s just that when we wield whatever power we have we profess to do so for the sake of righteousness and law and order – or just plain old entitlement, for that matter – but when another does so we call it rude, oppressive, destructive, or evil. We want things to go the way we want them to go, with the least amount of effort on our part, and with the most of whatever it is that we desire in return. But as soon as the desires of another come into conflict with our own we stand ready to fight, to kill even, in order to shape the world to our advantage. And all the while that we behave in this way we cry out to the heavens, or to anyone who will listen, that we just want peace. We just want peace. Why won’t everyone just behave in a way that allows us peace?

Sanshin - a three-stringed instrument

The Japanese have a three-stringed instrument called the sanshin, the design of which likely originated in China. Sanshin also refers to the three minds that one should cultivate in order to help create a harmonious monastic community: joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind (kishin, roshin, and daishin, respectively). These three minds were discussed in one of Zen’s most influential teachings, Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Zen Cook), by the 13th century monk, Dogen Zenji. A modern translation of this text, with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama, is available in From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment – Refining Your Life (Uchiyama, 1983). An online translation of Tenzo Kyokun is also available.

Instructions for the Zen Cook encourages engagement in all aspects of the work that is so deep, complete, and mindful as to be an act of meditative absorption in and of itself. But the work of the Zen cook is especially profound and impactful due to its potential to benefit each and every other monk in the monastery as they proceed with the fulfillment of their respective spiritual callings as best they can. Dogen says:
[W]hen working in any position of responsibility, not only as tenzo [Zen cook], but as any officer or assistant, strive to maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent. (Uchiyama, 1983)

I pick up the thread of Uchiyama’s commentary here, gleaning a broader, modern, and secular meaning from Dogen’s original text. Does the cultivation of a joyful mind, a nurturing mind, and a magnanimous mind not speak to us this very day as we try to come to grips with the violence that seems so rampant in our broken world? Let’s explore these three minds just a little bit further.

Dogen says of joyful mind:
A joyful spirit is one of gratefulness and buoyancy…. How fortunate we are to have been born as human beings [as opposed to some other state of being in which] …. our bodies and minds would be bound by the limitations and afflictions of those worlds and would have to suffer their burdens. (Uchiyama, 1983)
This joyfulness is rooted in the realization that we already have enough of what we need to be happy. When we stray from this understanding of sufficiency we want more and more. We start looking at what our neighbors have and we become envious, or we simply take what we want from them, without one iota of concern for whether they have sufficient resources of their own.

On nurturing mind, Dogen writes:
A parent, irrespective of poverty or difficult circumstances, loves and raises a child with care. How deep is love like this? Only a parent can understand it. A parent protects the children from the cold and shades them from the hot sun with no concern for his or her own personal welfare. Only a person in whom this mind has arisen can understand it, and only one in whom this attitude has become second nature can fully realize it. (Uchiyama, 1983) 
What are the limits of such a nurturing mind? Is it possible for us to consider those who have committed the most heinous acts of violence as we would wayward children who have lacked the appropriate guidance and opportunity that might have steered them down a more productive path? Is it possible to lament the fact that we’ve really not been very good "parents" after all? Is it possible to recognize the role that we have played in making the world the violent place that it is and strive to do a better job in the future? Oh, sure, it’s easy to pretend that the perpetrators of such violence are simply “demon children”, born of evil, not part of us at all. It’s easy to pretend that we had nothing to do with creating the world as it is today. Dare I descend into colloquial sarcasm and inquire: How’s that workin’ out for you?

Finally, on magnanimous mind, Dogen writes:
[It] is like a mountain, stable and impartial. Exemplifying the ocean, it is tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective. Having a Magnanimous Mind means being without prejudice and refusing to take sides. When carrying something that weighs an ounce, do not think of it as light, and likewise, when you have to carry fifty pounds, do not think of it as heavy. Do not get carried away by the sounds of spring, nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective. (Uchiyama, 1983)
So, are there limits to what the magnanimous mind will tolerate? Are we to take everything in stride – even the slaughter of innocents? I don’t think so. But I do think we need to view such slaughter from the broadest possible perspective. What is the motivation of the perpetrators? What are the causes for such actions? What are the conditions from which those actions arise? Does “refusing to take sides” mean remaining aloof and unengaged? Once again, I don’t think so. One cannot be nurturing if one is aloof and unengaged. But how would a parent respond to one of their children striking another? Would the child be disowned as if “demon spawn”? Of course not, and neither would the parent ignore what had just transpired and do nothing.

Yes, the world is broken. But fighting over who is responsible for breaking it and who is responsible for fixing it will not get us very far. Should a novice Zen monk make some grave mistake that causes a fire that destroys the monastery’s kitchen and larder, the Zen cook will not harbor thoughts of blame or ill will. He will take responsibility. He will look within and try to understand how it was that he did not understand the mind of that novice monk and the inadequacy of the training that he received.

In closing, Dogen states:
Whether you are the head of a temple, a senior monk or other officer, or simply an ordinary monk, do not forget the attitude behind living out your life with joy, having the deep concern of a parent, and carrying out all your activities with magnanimity. (Uchiyama, 1983)
Please, let us try.


Uchiyama, K. (1983). From the Zen kitchen to enlightenment – Refining your life. (Tr. by Wright, T.) Published by Weatherhill, Inc. Tenzo Kyokun written by Dogen Zenji in 1237.

Image Credits

Photograph of a sanshin via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In The Midst of a Fall - That Which We Already Know

Begin Part III
Chapter 7

By the time I entered middle school life had begun to move much faster than I was used to. Where once we had but one classroom to report to, and the occasional art or music or gym class that we got marched off to, now we had seven or more places to be on any given day. Suddenly we had so many books and papers that we needed lockers in which to store them all. Of course those lockers had combinations to remember…, and care needed to be taken that they really locked after being closed.

Perhaps the most stressful thing about middle school, though, was the realization of the passage of time. I really was getting older, and getting older meant getting closer and closer to my day of reckoning with that jungle war overseas. It was something that I could almost put out of my mind as long as we stayed in the same school building year after year, merely progressing from room to room and teacher to teacher; but being in middle school meant that I was almost in high school, and high school was the last thing that stood between me and the war.

It’s probably no wonder, then, that the start of middle school brought with it a bout of nervous anxiety. I’d close the door to my locker, spin the dial on the combination lock, and head off down the hall, only to be gripped within just a few steps by a sudden and inexplicable uncertainty as to whether it was really locked or not. With each step my doubt would grow, and with my growing doubt came imaginings of my books and papers being strewn up and down the hall by one class bully or another.

Yes, that was something new, as well - the bullies. Oh, sure there was mischief and the occasional tussle out on the playground back in grade school. But everybody seemed to be about the same size back then. By middle school, however, some of the boys had grown manlier in stature, and a couple of them were not above taking advantage of their more robust physical stature on a more regular basis. In retrospect, they were probably dealing with some newfound nervous anxiety of their own – anxiety that could be assuaged at least to some extent by displaying power over another. Yes, we were all in the midst of creating the selves that we would become.

Anyway, my anxiety seemed to grow stronger and more frequent as the school year wore on. I’d try to ignore my urge to go back and check that my things were secure, but then I’d give in and hurry back – feigning as though I’d forgotten something. Invariably I’d find that all was well, but there were times when even checking didn’t make any difference. I’d make it down the hall again and wonder whether I’d really checked or whether I’d only imagined that I’d checked. Maybe I still needed to go back and check – again..., or for the first time…, or whatever. So I’d go back and check yet again – this time being especially mindful to pay attention to each turn of the lock and each solid metallic clunk as I pulled up on the handle in order to prove once and for all that all was well.

The cage of the self was closing in around me. Who was in charge of me? Who was in charge of my mind? Who was I, anyway? Was I to go through life jerked this way and that by an errant thought here and an inexplicable worry there? I needed to be stronger than that. I needed to be more in control than that. I wouldn't survive otherwise. And so I began to pay closer attention to “my” mind. I began to watch how I could pay attention and how I could let it wander away. And if I got down the hall and couldn’t quite recall whether I’d been paying attention or whether I’d let my focus slip away, I’d simply let it go. I steeled myself to whatever humiliation might result. If I should come back to find my books all strewn about the hallway, then so be it; for I was the one in charge of me. I was the one in charge. Except, of course, when I wasn’t in charge of anything at all!

It was sometime during those middle school years that I learned that I’d likely not be compelled to fight in that jungle war after all. If all went well, we’d be pulling out. The war would soon be over. Now, if I were an adult and I’d just found out that, contrary to my long held belief, I wouldn’t be forced to go off and fight in some war after all, I’d probably throw a party. I’d go out and celebrate! I’d mark and forever remember that day when my life was given back to me again. Strange, though, I simply stared out the bus window as it bounced and swayed back and forth, and life went on as it always had. Well, not as it always had. For so much in life was beginning to change so quickly.

My parents were looking for a new home for us. There were three of us kids by then and we needed more room. We might not even stay in the same school district. Soon enough I’d need to say goodbye to the Nursery. For some reason, though, that didn’t strike me as being for forever. I’d become a fairly serious bicyclist by then. I and my friends would ride miles to visit theretofore unknown parts down along Gravois Creek and out along where the new highway was blasted into the fossil-laden limestone. Just as easily as I went to places far away, I would come back and visit my beloved Nursery. It was too much a part of me to ever say goodbye.

Life happens, though. We did move away, and I never did return. Whereas I always thought that I’d go back and visit those neighborhood friends, I never did. They’d been different ages and went to different schools, and so when there was no longer the commonality of being neighbors, there was nothing left at all. Besides, we were all older now and life was moving faster than it ever had before. It wasn’t like it used to be when we could visit each other’s houses and call for each other to come out and play. It wasn’t like we had all the time in the world to wander and explore and simply watch what was going on around us. It wasn’t enough to simply be anymore. The world wanted something of us. The world wanted us to be something. If only I knew what that something was.

Grief can be a very strange thing sometimes. Loss can happen without us ever even realizing it, then to be followed by grief once we do. Just a couple of years after we moved, the Nursery was unceremoniously bulldozed and graded over in order to make way for an apartment complex. And in the moment that I first saw what was happening I felt as though I knew just a little bit of what it must feel like to live through a war. In war, nothing matters but the will of the victorious. In war, nothing is sacred. In war, life is valued only in terms of its utility to the victorious.

Never again will I run those Nursery trails, or climb those trees, or sit beside those ponds simply watching. But even though it’s now some fifty years on, I still return there almost daily in my mind. Something happened back there in the Nursery that made my life what it is – that made all of life worthwhile. I was that place. Yes, I was that place. Before self-awareness made me stand out from the seamless reality of all that is, I was that place.

Image References

Bulldozer in action via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Cage of the Self - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 6 (conclusion) – The Cage of the Self

The nature of reality is unobscured as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

Seng-Ts'an, the Third Patriarch of Zen, was speaking of the practice of Zen. On the other hand, he may well have been referring to what took place in the proverbial Garden of Eden once our forebears had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; i.e., they began to make distinctions, thereby precipitating their estrangement from both the creator and created. Then again, he may well have been speaking of the construction of the self as I’ve been speaking of in this chapter so far. For the construction of the self is nothing if not an endless series of judgments and distinctions that cleave “us” from everything else: I like this. I don’t like that. I want that. I don’t want this. I’m good at this. I’m not good at that. This is me. That’s not me.

Yes, the human maturation process involves the making of distinctions as to who and what we are. By adolescence, or at least young adulthood unless some inordinate developmental difficulty has arisen, we’ve begun to adopt our various personae and play our various roles. Before too long we’ve become so used to this thing that we call our self that we can’t even imagine it not existing in some way, somehow, somewhere, no matter what. And along the way we’ve likely adopted certain beliefs regarding an afterlife, or reincarnation, or heaven and hell – elaborate imaginings that serve to assuage our fear that this thing that we’re expending so much energy to construct might one day no longer exist. Our self might no longer exist. Children, however, have no need for such beliefs. They’ve not yet adopted such a strong sense of self, and so they don’t yet have the same fear of its nonexistence as do we adults.

Unfortunately, the creation of the self does not only bring with it the fear of nonexistence; it brings with it an abundance of other fears that further constrain the freedom that we once enjoyed as children. So, do you remember running through the woods or through the neighborhood without concern for how fast or how far, and without concern for the smoothness or clumsiness of your gate? And do you remember how one day your self began to whisper in your ear that you’re a “runner” and you should be concerned with how fast and how far you run, and the form that you exhibit as you do. Or perhaps you recall deciding that you’re not a “runner” after all. You’re “no good” at running and so you refrain from doing it until such time as some life-threatening danger might present itself. And do you remember drawing or finger-painting or coloring without the question ever entering your mind as to whether you were “any good at it” or not, or whether it was a worthwhile pursuit or not? But then one day you concluded that “you” are not “artistic” after all, and that your time is much better spent engaging in things that you’re “good at” rather than not. Or perhaps you decided that you are indeed an “artist” and, as such, everything that you create must be deemed worthy of inclusion in your oeuvre. From now on every act of creation will be judged in terms of how it impacts your reputation, your product, your marketability.

Of course, these are just a couple of very simple examples. In fact, there are countless ways that we allow our ideas of self to constrain and confine us. “I’m a no-nonsense person,” you might say; and so whenever you find yourself in the midst of some nonsense or other you feel the sudden urge to flee. “I’m a successful person,” you might continually tell yourself; and so your determination that your career has taken a nosedive has your self-esteem in the gutter. “I’m an independent person,” you’ve always told yourself; and so the fact that an illness now makes you completely dependent upon others has you questioning your self-worth. “I’m an honorable person,” you’ve always thought; and so the fact that you just got caught stealing money from your church has left you contemplating suicide. It’s strange how, after having entered this world with unbounded freedom, we risk departing it within a cage of our very own creation. Yes, perhaps we even end up departing it with an act of irreversible self-destruction.

The nature of reality is unobscured as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

What are the criteria by which you judge your own happiness? Come on, you know you have them! Even a hermit living in stark simplicity out in the middle of the desert has them. Take away his beloved solitude by forcing him to wander ceaselessly in the middle of a noisy and bustling urban sprawl and those criteria will quickly become apparent.

What does your cage look like? Is it a professional image and demeanor from which you mustn’t stray lest you cease to be taken seriously by your clients and colleagues? Is it some illusion of beauty versus unattractiveness? Is it a tangle of political beliefs that you can’t help but trip over no matter how nimbly you move? Is it the need to be “good”, or the need to be “bad” for that matter? Is it a system of doctrinal religious belief that keeps you from engaging fully with the very reality of being itself? Is it an image…, a fashion…, an attitude…, a sense of some personal progress? Is it the illusion of health that ensnares you, or the illusion of sickness? Is it the idea of being wealthy that captivates you, or the idea of being mired in poverty? Do you have some reputation for intelligence or creativity or competence that you must uphold, or do you seek the shelter of their opposites? Do you live in a plain box of stability and normalcy, or is it a profusely decorated one that screams out the wildness and unconventionality of “you” that constrains you? And if it should come to pass that you see some truth being spoken here, what will you do? How will you free yourself? I’ve got an idea. How about by returning to that which you already know?

End Chapter Six
End Part II

Image References

Cartwheels by Tanya Little via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank